Tuesday, August 22, 2017

blueberry and blackberry Eton mess with whipped mascarpone

Before I moved to Washington, in our early excited phone calls, my sister said one of the things we could look forward to is blueberry picking together in the summer on her side of the cascades, and then in the fall, apple picking on my side of the mountains. Through the hard moments of this move, packing boxes and tearful goodbyes, I have stored up this snapshot of future life - life lived closer with my big sister - to help buoy my spirits.

There was a part of me that worried it wouldn't happen: these fruit picking family outings. Like people who live in Southern California but rarely make it to the beach (guilty as charged), it is easy to have expectations and dreams of the person we could be if we changed our life, if we moved somewhere else. Part of the early struggles of a new life are the comparison of the reality with the picture in my head. I will say there have been some hard days, some disappointments. But in this one area, I underestimated my sister: just three weeks in to my new residency, I found myself with her at a blueberry farm.

A couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days staying in Seattle with my sister and her family. My husband had work commitments out in the area and so we all packed up and drove out on Wednesday morning. When I pulled the suitcases out the day before, I noticed Duke and Harriet looked a little nervous. They have adjusted so well to all the changes, but at this point, I wonder if they think we don't have a home. They have stayed in such a hodgepodge of places over the last few weeks: a packed up California house, hotel rooms, an empty rental house and then the same rental house packed with California boxes, etc. But one of the benefits of crate trained dogs is that as long as their crates are with them, they have a bit of security. When we move the crates to carry them outside to put in the car, they tried to jump in them to assert that where the crates go, they do too.

On Thursday morning, three of us: myself, Elizabeth and Amelia, drove to Mountainview Blueberry Farm in Snohomish. We all wore our sun hats, as the weather was unusually hot for the Seattle area- 90+. The staff at the farm set us up with buckets and pails with strings tied on and directed us towards the best areas for picking.

My previous experience with blueberry picking has all been in the wild of Southeast Alaska: directions to berry patches include notes like "look for the tallest pine tree on the right side of the road, just after the 3rd curve, and walk straight down hill".  Wild blueberries themselves are much smaller and their flavor concentrated, but picking them is the focused work of plucking the berries one by one from the bush. At the blueberry farm, I encountered blueberries that grow in clusters so that I could run my hand down a branch and the ripe berries popped off their stems, plunking directly into my bucket. We figured we had about an hour for picking, so we worked furiously. Amelia picked too but also ate and also dumped her bucket out. At one point, my sister accidentally spilled blueberries out of her own bucket and cried out "oh no!" Amelia tottered over and said, "It's okay momma, can I give you a hug?" She is such a sweetheart.

At the farm, there were other groups picking alongside us in the rows. There was just enough distance and privacy from the bushes that people felt free to converse amongst themselves but, in reality, all of us could easily hear one another. I loved catching snippets of conversation from a group of teenagers that someone had hauled along with them. They weren't particularly interested in berry picking but rather recounting the past weeks activities: who had been where and at which party etc. Their conversation brought such a wave of nostalgia from teenage summers- where it felt like there was so much possibility if only one could be in the right place at the right time. A row over from me, I listened as two young moms, babies in backpacks, chatted about finds at the recent Nordstrom sale and lamented an upcoming family reunion ("My own mother won't help me with the kids at all!").

After an hour, we decided to call it. The weight of carrying my bucket was causing an ache in my shoulders, so I was secretly hopeful about the amount of picking I accomplished. Under the pop-up canopies at the front of the farm entrance, we watched as our berries were poured into cardboard flats for weighing. We were just shy of 12 lbs! Easily the most blueberries my sister and I have ever picked in one setting. Here is a snapshot of my berry bucket with my fingers stained from picking.

We took our berry flats home- carefully placed in the backseat of the car. Once there, while Amelia napped, we picked over the berries to remove stems, leaves, snails and whatever else had been snagged along the way. The berries then spent a good soak in cold water- distributed amongst large bowls that covered two thirds of my sisters kitchen counters. It was satisfying work. After they were cleaned up, we spread 3/4 of the berry haul in single layers on large cookie sheets and placed them in the freezer. We left the remaining 1/4 of berries available for snacking from the fridge.

Late that evening my husband joined us back at my sisters house and he and my brother in law walked to a nearby brewery for a nightcap. They returned from the walk with a bounty of foraged wild blackberries. The polished purple beads of the blackberries along with the blueberries inspired the dessert for our following evening out. My sister (such a great planner!) snagged 4 tickets for us all to the Allen Stone concert at Chateau Ste Michelle, a winery just north of Seattle that hosts outdoor summer concerts. Amelia (and Duke and Harriet) stayed home with a sitter and my sister and I packed an easy picnic supper and two bottles of wine.

Our dinner included a gorgeous tomato, basil and mozzarella salad assembled by my sister with yellow heirloom tomatoes. My contribution was dessert- a riff on my favorite Eton mess. If you're not familiar with the dessert, it is a jumbled together mix of berries, whipped cream, and broken meringues. I like to let guests assemble their own, so they can portion out more or less of each of the components as they desire. It can all be made in advance, and as long as elements stay cool, it travels quite nicely. In my California life, I brought this treat into work several times. The magic of this dish is the alchemy of crisp sharply sweet meringue with edges melted by tart soft berries, all held together by a cloud of cream. Trader Joe's sells a tub of vanilla meringues which are just perfect for the job. While Eton mess is traditionally made with strawberries, I feel no loyalty and regularly substitute whatever berry I like. I like to cook the berries down slightly to be sure there is enough of a sauce to soften up the meringues. I include a smidge of cinnamon with the sauce because my mom always includes it in her blueberry cobbler. I like the pairing- I feel like the cinnamon brings out a certain muskiness in the blueberries. You are welcome to omit, but I'd highly encourage giving it a try.

While also untraditional, the addition of the mascarpone to the whipped cream provides a bit of tang and results in a mixture that flirts with a sort of deconstructed cheesecake. I add vanilla extract, but I also think a little citrus zest folded in at the end could be wonderful. (Mascarpone is a soft Italian cheese and, like cream cheese, can be used in both sweet and savory preparations. Here is one of my favorite ways to enjoy it.)

The Chateau Ste Michelle concert venue was charming- like a smaller, more casual version of Hollywood Bowl. Instead of bleachers and benches, it is a large open field and people bring blankets or low camping chairs. Allen Stone put on a wonderful show. He is crazy talented and has a great goofy sense of humor. As the sun set, the air cooled enough to remind me I was in Washington, and I thought about how I was with people I love, eating food we had picked and made together. It was a lucky moment where the person I hoped to be met the person I am.

Please note: the berry sauce recipe below will make extra which is excellent to stash in the fridge for serving on pancakes or even muddled into cocktails (!)

blueberry and blackberry Eton mess with whipped mascarpone

berry sauce:
4 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup water
2 cups fresh blackberries

whipped mascarpone:
8 oz. container of mascarpone
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4-5 tablespoons granulated sugar

to assemble:
7.75 oz package of vanilla meringues (I'd recommend enough for 3-4 meringues per person)

for sauce
1) In a medium sized heavy bottomed sauce pan, stir together all the ingredients, except the blackberries. Reserve those for the end.

2) Heat over medium high heat until sauce starts to bubble (berries will burst and release juices), then lower the temperature and cook until it thickens up slightly. As I shared above, I keep this sauce on the loose side and don't let it get too jammy or thick, but it is entirely up to your preference.

3) Remove sauce from heat and set aside to cool. Once the temperature has reduced, stir in the blackberries. This sauce can be made in advance and kept in the fridge.

for whipped mascarpone 
1) In a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the mascarpone and stir for a few seconds on medium speed, just to smooth things out.

2) Add the vanilla and sugar and stir again to incorporate.

3) Add in about a third of the heavy cream and start the speed out slow so that it is incorporating (and not splattering cream everywhere), then increase speed to start to whip the cream and build the volume. Do not whip for so long that you've actually made the whipped cream, stop while it is still soft and add the second third of the heavy cream. Follow the same steps: start out with slow speed so that the heavy liquid is smoothly mixed in and then increase speed to just start to see an increase in volume. At this point, stop the mixer and check for sweetness. If more sugar is needed, add here- it will give it time to dissolve. Add the remaining third of the heavy cream, once incorporated, increase the speed until the mixture is whipping and thickens up like whipped cream. Be sure to watch carefully as this happens pretty quickly and want to avoid making butter. Chill the cream mixture until ready to serve.

to assemble
1) Place the meringues in a large ziplock baggie and on a heavy surface, smash down with your fist to break into large pieces- about quarter or half-dollar size (any smaller than that and they just disappear in the mixture).

2) Set out the berry sauce, whipped mascarpone, and crushed meringues. Provide guests with small bowls to assemble their own Eton mess. Enjoy!

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